The Colorado Buffaloes edged the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday night, 34-31. It was a back and forth game that tested CU’s endurance, mental strength and team depth, but they picked up a crucial win. They’re now 3-1 on the season and snapped an FBS-worst 29-game road losing streak to Top 25 teams.
1. Steven Montez bounces back, and he has a great supporting cast
One of the strangest things leading up to Saturday was that everyone had a feeling Steven Montez would have a great game against ASU. He struggled badly against Air Force and his performance may have cost CU that game (not because he was that bad, but because QB is so important). But Montez usually bounces back after poor games. He was sharp, patient and didn’t force anything. His deep passes to Tony Brown were superb. He converted third downs by going through his progressions, buying time by scrambling, and hitting his fourth option on the play. Montez finished the day 23/30 with 337 yards and 3 touchdowns all on perfect passes.
It helps that the CU offensive line was terrific. ASU’s defensive line isn’t disruptive as much as they are big, but they do blitz a lot. The Buffs neutralized them as they allowed one sack and only a handful of pressures. It also helped that Montez’s receivers are very skilled and very deep. Laviska Shenault Jr. was injured on CU’s first possession, but Tony Brown, KD Nixon and Dimitri Stanley all stepped up in a big way. Brown was the Buffs’ best player, as he kept taking the top off the defense and making great catches in the end zone. Nixon created some magic too with his quickness and after the catch ability. Stanley, a redshirt freshman, was usually the one Montez found open on third down.
2. This defense lacks team speed
While the offense had a good game, questions remain about the defense. We saw this issue in Week 1 against Colorado State and it’s continued to be exploited: CU does not have any speed in the middle of the field. Despite having Davion Taylor, literally the fastest sprinter on the CU track team, the linebacking corps struggles badly in space, both side-to-side and forward-backward. Nate Landman is a hoss, but he is exploited in open space. Jonathan van Diest is good too, but he’s just not quick enough to be in position. It doesn’t help either that CU is new to zone concepts, the pass rush is bad (especially without Mustafa Johnson), and quarterbacks have all day to find receivers on crossing routes. Until CU makes a major adjustment — and I honestly have no idea what that would be — the Buffs will continue to allow chunk yards to speedy players.
3. Colorado would have lost this game in 2018
These close games are killing me, personally, but this team doesn’t care. They’re mentally prepared to survive four quarters of blow-for-blow football. Obviously it’s the players making plays, but it’s clear that Mel Tucker has had an influence on their mental strength. He preached toughness and accountability all offseason, and though that sounds like classic “SEC Football” talk, Tucker is authentic about it. He’s prepared his players for a difficult season and he’s there behind them every step of the way.
The Buffs of years past would have given up against Nebraska and pitied themselves after Air Force, then they would’ve panicked after ASU erased CU’s 14-0 lead. (The exception is the 2016 season, but those players were so focused that it’s impossible to re-create. That year was a player’s year led by one of the best senior classes in CU history.) That’s where Tucker is so different from Mike MacIntyre. He’s level-headed, doesn’t coach emotionally, and he’s the steady rock for his players. He calmly reminds his players of exactly what they need to do to win. That quiet confidence helps tremendously as players deal with the highs and lows of a close football game. Never doubt anyone who coaches in shorts.